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A Technique that Never Gained Traction

The past few days, I've been thinking a lot about miniature painting and learning about its history.


Most miniature paintings are done today with a paint called gouache which is an opaque version of watercolor paint. The miniatures from older jewelry pieces (recorded from the 1500s and 1600s) were painted with watercolors on vellum, which was then a calf skin and not a synthetic paper like today.


There's a long history of the miniature portrait which was carried in a pendant or locket. An open pendant with a portrait was thought to show loyalty to the person whose portrait was painted on the miniature. A locket pendant would've been more discreet and could signify an allegiance to a controversial figure or the portrait of one's lover.


Miniatures began as portraits. When the printing press was invented, the art of the illuminated manuscript quickly fell out of fashion. Some of these old handwritten books were taken apart and pages were sold individually. Some people even 'clipped' the pages and sold the clippings. The clippings would have portraits of the person who commissioned the illuminated manuscript and that's how this style of jewelry portraiture became a trend. Famous painters like Hans Holbein the Younger, had to learn how to do miniature portrait painting for the royal courts who employed them.


It's a weird coincidence that I first fell in love with illuminated manuscripts and was then naturally drawn to this concept of miniature painting. I had no idea that the two were related, or that one eventually led to the other.


Nowadays most of the miniature painting for jewelry is done in India, from what I've seen. They have a tradition of creating miniature paintings for jewelry, but I haven't yet figured out what type of paint they use or the type of surface they paint on. I have found a few experts/artists who paint with gouache on wood but they don't do any metalwork around the piece. I haven't found anyone who is doing their paintings with oil paint. I chose oil paint simply because I was trained with oils and preferred them to acrylics. The colors are so much stronger and you can return to your work over the next few days to add details or to blend.


This has been a fascinating field to study and one that is highly specific. Not too many artists got into miniature painting and they all seem to have forged their own path. What I like about that idea is that miniature painting isn't so steeped in tradition that if you take your own direction with it, no one will scoff at you for the work that you've created. And because it never became highly popularized, you can still find your own voice within it.


To things that spark joy,

Caitlin